Archive for June, 2021

Happy Days (Riverside Studios)

Posted: June 18, 2021 in Theatre

Writer: Samuel Beckett. Director: Trevor Nunn

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Poor old Winnie doesn’t have much of a life. Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days is here again and we find her stuck deeper and deeper in a mound of earth, but this time at the Riverside Studios, perilously close to a stretch of the Thames that is tidal.

Director Trevor Nunn’s revival marks the 60th anniversary of Beckett’s absurdist comedy of frightfully cheerful despair. The play is a near monologue, interrupted only by a few words and grunts from Willie (Simon Wolfe), Winnie’s henpecked husband who is entrenched in another hole nearby. He sleeps through most of his wife’s ramblings as she recounts the mundanities of life and reflects on the unstoppable passage of time. Every day, it seems, replicates the one that preceded it, all of them, in the end, “happy”.

Lisa Dwan’s Winnie is often a comic delight, shielding herself from the sun with a flimsy parasol and worrying that she could “put on flesh” and make her home too tight. However, overall, Dwan seems less concerned with milking the comedy than with mining the tragedy, her every syllable dripping with a sense of rage at her character’s hopelessness. Her performance makes Nunn’s interpretation of the play much darker than many that have gone before, but, blessed with a rich Irish accent, she could well have found the voice that was in the playwright’s head when he wrote Winnie’s words.

Robert Jones’ set design, beautifully lit by Tim Mitchell, makes a stunning impact. Extending to the width of two wide cinema screens, it resembles the view from an aeroplane window, Winnie’s mound looking like a fluffy cloud in the foreground. Thanks too to sound designer Johnny Edwards for ringing bells loud enough to rouse the whole of West London.

Trying to make too much sense of this play can ruin it, but it seems reasonable to assume that the mound of earth is a metaphor for constraints placed around everyday existences. Certainly the ravages of ageing are inescapable, but we can think of other constraints in terms of, for example, political oppression, social immobility or, given a topical slant, lockdown. Beckett is not specific and Nunn offers few pointers. The writer is not telling us, individually or collectively, to acquiesce like Winnie nor to put on a happy face and shrug our shoulders, rather he is gently mocking our tendency to do so.

At 90 minutes plus interval, the play’s central premise is stretched about as far as it could go. It will not be to everyone’s taste, maybe not even to Winnie’s, although she would take the glass half full approach to it. In fairness, we should see it in at least the same light.

Performance date: 17 June 2021

Book: Craig Lucas. Music: Daniel Messé Lyrics: Nathan Tysen and Daniel Messé Director: Michael Fentiman

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The statue of Eros guards over the entrance to London’s Criterion Theatre and gives a fitting clue to the air of the show that has now taken up residence inside. Based on Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s hit 2001 film Amélie, this musical is set in a romanticised version of modern Paris which bears only a passing resemblance to the reality lying little more than a couple of hours away on Eurostar.

French-themed musicals do not have a bad track record and this one was seen briefly in London before the pandemic. The show is now making its West End debut at a theatre in which alternate rows of seating have been removed, such a blessing for those of us who are slightly long of leg. Drinks can also be delivered to seats, perhaps giving us a preview of luxury theatregoing in the future. 

There are no Eiffel Towers to be seen in Madeleine Girling’s split-level set design which eschews the obvious, but, when lit dimly, looks more like a crypt at Notre Dame than a vibrant cityscape and seems somewhat at odds with the feel good mood of the show.

Amélie Poulain (Audrey Bisson) is a shy young lady from a dysfunctional family. Her father has more time for a garden gnome than for her. After being whisked quickly through her backstory, we find Amélie in 1997, a waitress in a Parisian restaurant. She is a naive fantasist who embarks on a plan to perform extraordinary acts of kindness to others. Various stories intertwine, leading to multiple redemptions and Amélie herself moves along a path towards romance with Nino (Chris Jared).

Leading the company, Bisson and Jared are excellent, but this is an ensemble piece for 16 multi-tasking actors/singers/musicians. Under Michael Fentiman’s direction, they harmonise in every sense and generate a compelling sense of community. Fentiman’s witty and inventive production flows, seemingly effortlessly and thrives on group energy.

The original film was most notable for its quirky humour, which is captured well in Craig Lucas’ book and the song lyrics by Nathan Tysen and composer Daniel Messé. There is a folksy feel to Messé’s lovely music, but there is also much variety, ranging from lilting love ballads to comic parodies. A surprise appearance by Elton John (Caolan McCarthy) brings the first half to a rousing climax.

Thick French accents assumed by the entire company seem unnecessary and they impair the clarity of the storytelling. However, it becomes impossible to dwell long on minor flaws while being swept away by the endearing performances and ravishing melodies to be seen and heard here. This is one enchanted evening which make

Performance date: 2 June 2021

Writer: Alfred Fagon Director: Dawn Walton

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Continuing its much interrupted season of revivals of plays which premiered here, Hampstead Theatre looks back to 1975. At first glance, the chilling title of Alfred Fagon’s The Death of a Black Man suggests that the play’s themes could have been echoed in recent events. As it transpires, the title is misleading, but it still leads to the key questions for a modern audience: how much in society has changed in almost half a century and how much of what is depicted in the drama is still relevant today?

The time is 1973, the place is a smart flat in Chelsea’s Kings Road, owned by Shakie, a confident entrepreneur who struts around proudly in his flowery shirt and bell-bottom trousers. His age is 18. He is visited by ex-girlfriend Jackie, who comes from a comfortable middle class background and is the mother of a child fathered by Shakie when he was 15. She is 30. Third to arrive is Stumpie, Shakie’s friend who has plans to make it big in the music business and favours a revolutionary approach to righting historical injustices. He is 21. All three characters are British and black.

The ages and other character details are emphasised, but they play little part in the play’s slight narrative and it is unclear why Fagon thinks them so important. It seems illogical that Shakie could have achieved his status in life so young, but Nickcolia King-N’da gives him refreshing youthfulness even when his dialogue belies his demeanour. Natalie Simpson struggles to find depth in the underwritten role of Jackie, but there is a real sense of danger in Toyin Omari-Kinch’s Stumpie as he paces around the stage smouldering with aggression..

The first half of the play resembles early John Osborne, with characters debating the crumbling British nation and empire while taking the drama nowhere. Like Osborne, Fagon gives little prominence to feminist causes. We gather that racism is at the root of all the characters’ grievances and we observe that even the victims of racism are themselves driven into becoming racists. 

The second half is altogether more dark and surreal. Shakie, having been let down in a business deal, turns to Stumpie’s radical ideas and the two men imprison the hapless Jackie with a view to selling her into slavery. Director Dawn Walton’s production is impassioned, but it does not unravel all the play’s mysteries and, when the three characters stand in a line and address the audience directly, it looks as if Walton is signalling defeat. 

As to modern relevance, perhaps racism is like the coronavirus in that it mutates repeatedly over time. If so, the 1973 variant is different from the 2021 one and there may not be too much point in putting it under a microscope for further study. The only certainties are that both variants are equally destructive and equally difficult to conquer.

Fagon’s writing is confrontational, confusing and often contradictory. If he gave 1975 audiences a severe jolt, the shock factor today, when at least the issues that he raises are discussed more openly, could be diminished. Still this remains a challenging play and, because it points to no prospect of resolution, it is also a deeply depressing one.

Performance date: 3 June 2021